Losing a Loved One Can Literally Break Your Heart
The experience of grief is often described as having an aching or broken heart. It turns out that this description may be fitting, as emotional distress has now been shown to dramatically increase a person’s risk of suffering a heart attack.
Researchers with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center interviewed approximately 2,000 patients who had suffered a heart attack over a five-year period between 1989 and 1994. The patients were asked a series of questions about potentially triggering events for the cardiac event, including whether or not they had recently lost “a significant person” in their lives.
Nineteen of the subjects had lost a loved one the day before having a heart attack, and 15 of these had no history of heart disease making the risk of having a cardiac event in the first 24 hours 21 times greater than those not experiencing grief. In the one-week period following the loss, the risk remained high at six to eight times over normal. Thankfully, the heart attack risk slowly declined after about a month.
“Bereavement and grief are associated with increased feelings of depression, anxiety and anger, and those have been shown to be associated with increases in heart rate and blood pressure, and changes in the blood that make it more likely to clot, all of which can lead to a heart attack,” said lead author Elizabeth Mostofsky, MPH., ScD, a research fellow in the department of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.
In addition, emotional distress and bereavement also cause the survivor to temporarily change their lifestyle, such as by forgetting to take medications or failing to exercise and eat right. They also tend to sleep less, another factor known to raise cardiovascular disease risk.
In this study, men seemed to be more affected than women, especially when they lose a spouse. However, a previous study found that women were particularly susceptible to a condition known as “Broken Heart Syndrome” or Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy in which symptoms of a heart attack are experienced (chest pain, shortness of breath, irregular heart rhythm), but without blood vessel blockage as in the case of a regular heart attack.
Friends and family of those bereaved people should help to provide close support, especially during the first few weeks of the grieving process, says Dr. Mostofsky. “We do think it’s plausible that social support during that increased time of vulnerability would help mitigate the risk of heart attack,” she said.
In addition, “Physicians, patients and families should …make sure that someone experiencing grief is getting their physical and medical needs met,” adds senior author Murray Mittleman MD DrPH.
Mostofsky E, Maclure M, Sherwood JB, et al. Risk of acute myocardial infarction after the death of a significant person on one's life. The determinants of myocardial infarction onset study. Circulation 2012; DOI: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.111.061770.